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Vet's wine venture becoming a sparkling business
By JOHN CARLSON
Register Columnist
02/14/2001

Vet's wine venture becoming a sparkling business

Eagle City, Ia. - Ken Groninga passed a glass across the counter, offering a taste of his cranberry wine.
  Thanks, but I don't really care for cranberries, I told him. And I particularly don't care for sweet wine. Cranberry wine surely must be sweet.
  OK. I'll take a sip. Just to be polite.
  Hey, wait a second. That's pretty good. Not that sweet. Different. Really nice.
  Now try the Merlot, Groninga said. Then some Chardonnay. He makes it right here in Eagle City, in Iowa's newest winery.
  You say you've never heard of Eagle City? That's all right. Hardly anybody has.
  Eagle City was founded in 1850, the site of a flour mill, a few houses and a stagecoach stop.
  There are still a couple of houses here - Groninga's and his son's - a nice little park and the brand new Eagle City Winery.
  You'd think a 63-year-old, semiretired veterinarian starting a winery from scratch would be fulfilling a lifelong dream. Not quite.
  Groninga and his wife, Carolyn, like an occasional glass of wine, but it never was any big deal. Things changed when they moved to Eagle City and built their log home a few yards from the banks of the Iowa River.
  It's where the Ackley native hunted squirrels as a kid and where he noticed the mulberries, raspberries, elderberries, chokecherries and plums growing wild.
  "I bought some books on wine-making and decided to give it try," Groninga said. He began entering competitions - the Clay County Fair, the Iowa State Fair - and did pretty well. He ended up with five gold ribbons - the highest honor in the State Fair's wine-making category.
  In 1998, his chokecherry wine won the fair's Best of Show prize in the non-grape category.
  By then, Groninga was growing grapes on his acreage. After five years of maturing, they're ready to be mixed with the juice concentrate he has been importing from Canada to make the five kinds of wine produced here.
  Everything is done by hand - the mixing, bottling, corking, even sticking on the labels.
  The juice comes in five-gallon containers. Groninga adds water, sugar, acids and yeast and puts the mixture in stainless steel drums for a week or so. It's then transferred to large glass jars to ferment two or three more weeks, then transferred to another jug so the sediment can be removed.
  It's about eight weeks from the beginning of the process until it is transferred to the bottles. The wine is stored at least three months before it is labeled and ready for sale.
  Groninga has been selling wine for six weeks now and has sold about 600 bottles.
  He delivers Eagle City Wine to a restaurant not far from here and drives a few bottles a week to the liquor store in Iowa Falls.
  "I'm hearing good things about it so far," Groninga said. "I'm hoping to sell 4,000 to 6,000 bottles a year within 50 or so miles."
  He's on pace for that already, without spending a nickel on advertising and operating out of a facility next to a winding, gravel road between Iowa Falls and Ackley. It is, Groninga said, "10 miles from anywhere."
  (Call (641) 648-3669 or visit the winery's Web site: 'eaglecitywinery.com' for directions.)
  "I certainly don't consider myself a wine connoisseur," Groninga said. "It's been a self-education type of thing."
  He is excited about the prospect of incorporating his own grapes into the product. That will involve more experimenting and more fun.
  The sandy, rocky soil here is good for growing grapes, and Groninga plans to plant more. Not that the state of Iowa will offer any financial incentives to any of its handful of commercial wine-making businesses.
  "I asked about grants or loans," Groninga said. "The state encourages diversification of agriculture and I thought maybe this would qualify. I was told no, the state isn't interested."
  That's too bad, but it probably won't matter. This looks like a business that will make it without any help.

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